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Such inconsistencies which, to many, smack of double standards are not confined to Britain. Despite the gravitational pull toward uniformity provided by the binding opinions of the European Court of Human Rights, a diverse Continent does not lend itself to a common approach. "It's like trying to nail down a jellyfish," says Vincenzo Zeno-Zencovich, a professor of comparative law at Roma Tre University. "Each country has its own taboos. What applies to Great Britain does not apply to Greece."
The old law-school adage holds that hard cases make bad law, and when a country finds certain words upsetting enough to ban them, all the cases are hard. In December, breaking a postwar statute still on the books, Italian soccer player Paolo Di Canio gave his fans at Lazio a fascist salute. He was disqualified for a game and fined €10,000 but not prosecuted. On the other hand, a prosecutor secured a court order last year shutting a website that concocted a photomontage of Pope Benedict XVI in a Nazi SS uniform, following disclosures that he had served briefly in the Hitler Youth. Italy prohibits publicly insulting religion but whether the law protects Islam hasn't been tested.
To many Muslims in Europe, that's a particular rub. Laws touted as evenhanded appear to tilt in favor of the home team. Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, before he was murdered by a radical Islamist in Amsterdam, was a poster boy for unconditional free speech. He said Muslims had sex with goats and that a Jewish writer with whom he disagreed had erotic dreams about Nazi death-camp doctor Josef Mengele. He was never convicted under the Netherlands' statute banning "scornful blasphemy." The Justice Minister proposed reviving the law in the wake of his death, to use against the kind of offensive speech Van Gogh was killed over, but a decision has yet to be reached. In France last week, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo republished the 12 disputed Danish cartoons, while devoting its cover to a sketch of a red-faced Muhammad holding his head in his hands and saying "It's tough being loved by idiots." The government-sanctioned French Council of the Muslim Faith (cfcm) tried to stop publication as an instance of "racial and religious abuse," but the case was dismissed on procedural grounds. cfcm president Dalil Boubakeur, who plans to sue every French paper that published the cartoons (for what, he hasn't said yet), told Time that "France has to realize the new social fact that Muslims are an important part of the population."
Boubakeur alludes to an important point: the boundary between permissible and impermissible speech shifts in tune with changes in political power. Blair has been trying to channel the wave of disgust that followed last July's Muslim suicide attacks against London's transport system to broaden Britain's restrictions on speech that might incite terror. But he's still been finding it a tough sell. And last week, his critics pointed to al-Masri's conviction as proof that existing laws are more than sufficient to nab those who intentionally and threateningly advocate terror, without creating vague crimes that could give prosecutors a fishing license. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human-rights group Liberty, thinks a better solution is to enlist moderate Muslims in the war on terrorism through "a universal human-rights framework." That means, she says, "Salman Rushdie should be free to write books they might not like; but also that Muslim women should be free to wear the veil too. When applied evenhandedly, free speech is not the enemy of minorities, it's their protection."
So does that mean the answer to the tensions free speech can unleash is more free speech? It's not an argument that would win over those to whom some matters, like lampooning the Prophet or depicting Jesus as a woman, are literally unspeakable. But in a Continent with plenty of centuries-old minorities, as well as millions of Muslims who are now part of a volatile, Internet-speed global conversation between Islam and the West that can turn a cartoon into a casus belli, is there a better answer?